Archive | January, 2011

12th Bird of Christmas: Three-Wattled Bellbird

6 Jan

Dedication: As I wrap up this final Bird of Christmas on Epiphany, my mother turns 80 today. She has been teaching me to appreciate birds for almost 47 years; I dedicate this entire series to her.

Courtesy of Lapa Rios Ecolodge

It was my first time exploring the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve, a deep green magical forest with tall old-growth trees that seem to be from another place and time. Hiking along lush trails through mist that evaporates as sunlight streams down from the canopy, I was mesmerized by an eerie yet lovely soundtrack of high pitched “eeenk” sounds followed by what can only be described as a “metallic bonk,” like the amplified plunk of an out-of-tune piano key.

Following the “eeenk; bonk” sounds from one opening in the thick tropical forest to another, I finally spotted the enthusiastic vocalist, a male Three-Wattled Bellbird! He is a beautiful creature with a ghostly white head, neck and shoulders, and a chestnut-brown torso, perched on the very tip of a craggy branch, not too high up in the trees, mouth gaping open to project his territorial call for up to two miles!

Watch him making his call and you will want to go!

A couple of nights before, I had visited La Calandria Private Reserve and Lodge, where I heard a presentation by Debra Hamilton about the Three-Wattled Bellbird, Procnias tricarunculata. Debra is a conservation biologist, a mom, a bird research specialist, owner and manager of a small bookstore and café, the director of the Costa Rican Conservation Foundation – and those are just a few of her titles. She has devoted her life to studying the rare and endangered bird species that make the mystical Monteverde Cloud Forest their home, and is heading up many projects to help save these hauntingly beautiful birds.

Debra, who has been working in the Monteverde area since 1992, explained that there are only a few Bellbirds still in existence in the very special humid forest habitats where their favorite food, the wild avocado, grows. This is because, sadly, much of the tropical forest containing the bird’s food supply has been cut down, in Costa Rica and in other Central American countries. What was once a large area of forest is now only in small fragmented pieces. Along with several other scientists, Debra has studied diversity of understory birds and the use of agricultural windbreaks as biological corridors for birds moving between forest fragments. She is currently involved in a long-term study of the Bellbird, including investigations of migratory patterns, population locations and sizes (which means taking a Bellbird census!), and the possible impact of climate change on Bellbird populations.

Debra and her colleagues know that in order to save the Bellbird from extinction, its remaining habitat must be preserved and protected. So they have begun to focus much of their energy on reforestation projects. I want to help, and so does Terra Incognita Ecotours, so we plan to partner to offer a special bird conservation trip this spring. I’d like to hear from anyone who would be interested in a voluntourism experience in May or June 2011 staying in Monteverde at La Calandria Private Reserve and Lodge and visiting the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve. You would join us in planting trees that will help expand and enrich habitat for the Bellbirds (and other avian species such as yesterday’s Resplendent Quetzal) so that their voices will always ring out over the cloud forest canopy.

Read more about the bellbird and Debra Hamilton here.

Some photos for this entry are courtesy of Lapa Rios Ecolodge in Costa Rica and Bruce Smith of Seascape Kayak Tours.

Photo by Bruce Smith

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11th Bird of Christmas: Resplendent Quetzal

5 Jan

Today’s elusive bird, a symbol of freedom, is one whose presence I was actually in once, but forfeited my chance to view it in favor of another avian quest.

I was in the Monteverde Cloud Forest, and shortly after arriving, heard both the call of the Resplendent Quetzal, and also that of the Three-Wattled Bellbird. A large crowd was forming in the area from which the Quetzal’s voice was emanating, while the Bellbird promised to be further away from the masses up a solitary mountain trail. And so I went for the Bellbird, more about which I’ll share tomorrow. My hope was that later on, the Quetzal would still be available, but alas it did not grant me another opportunity for an audience. And this fact in and of itself will draw me back to Monteverde as soon as possible.

Courtesy of Ged Caddick, Terra Incognita Ecotours

In his famous book, “A Naturalist in Costa Rica,” Alexander F. Skutch devotes a an 18-page chapter to the Quetzal, recounting its history as a bird sought out for many purposes, some of them sinister.

“While still a schoolboy, I possessed a Guatemalan postage stamp that depicted a brilliant green bird with a crimson belly, a ridged crest over the head, and a remarkably long, gracefully curving train. Later, I learned that this bird is called the Quetzal and, later still, that the Guatemalans had chosen it as their national emblem and pronounced its name with the accent on the last syllable. Symbol of liberty, the Quetzal, it was averred, would invariably die if confined in a cage.”

Skutch then gets into the cruel realities of how the bird was hunted for centuries, not for its picture, but to create a mounted trophy! “Although I saw so many stuffed Quetzal skins, it was long before I glimpsed a living Quetzal in the forest. Doubtless, the abundance of the stuffed skins explained the rareness of the living birds, for as too often happens, it was only after they had become rare in Guatemala that laws for their protection were made and enforced.”

Courtesy of Ged Caddick, Terra Incognita Ecotours

Like the Second Bird of Christmas in this series, so Pharomachrus mocinno, the next-to-last bird, belongs to the trogon family. Its song is a treble syllable described as KYOW or like “a whimpering pup,” often in pairs, which may be repeated monotonously.

Quetzal eating a caterpillar

The Resplendent Quetzal is classified as “near threatened” and can be found in some of Costa Rica’s protected areas, such as the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve, where it shares habitat with the aforementioned Three-Wattled Bellbird. In partnership with Terra Incognita Ecotours and La Calandria Private Reserve and Lodge, I will be helping to organize and lead a voluntourism experience to Monteverde in May or June of 2011 to help with reforestation efforts that will provide more habitat for both species. You’ll hear more about this in my final entry of the series tomorrow. If being a part of such a tour interests you, please comment here or on my Facebook page.

11 birds down, and one to go! Thanks for reading.

Photos for this entry are courtesy of Ged Caddick and Terra Incognita Ecotours.

10th Bird of Christmas: Potoo

4 Jan

Today’s and tomorrow’s birds are ones I’ve never seen, but intend to go on a quest for during my next excursion to Costa Rica. First is the Potoo, a very well camouflaged type of nightjar that comes in three species: Great, Northern and Common. I don’t care which one I see, I just want to see one.

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These rarely-seen-but-often-heard nocturnal birds belong to the family Nyctibiidae, which only occurs in the New World tropics. The Common Potoo and Northern Potoo are virtually identical, while the Great is much larger. During the day, these birds’ cryptic plumage and signature stretched-out pose makes them difficult to distinguish from the broken-branch stubs and posts on which they typically roost, their mottled feathers blending in perfectly with their woody perch.

At night, when they are active hunters and open their huge eyes, they can be mistaken for owls. They sally out in the dark to catch large flying insects – and in the case of the Great Potoo even small bats – with their large gaping mouths open wide. The Great’s eerie deep roaring GWAAAAAA while perched, and the higher pitched and more emphatic GWOK emitted in flight, are described as otherworldly.

A professional photographer I know is currently in Manuel Antonio and is headed for Corcovado National Park on the Osa Peninsula in a few days, either place in which he might be able to spot and take some images of a Potoo. If he picks up this gauntlet and is successful, we’ll provide an addendum blog of his photos here. Meanwhile I include a shot of the Great Potoo by Ged Caddick of Terra Incognita Ecotours taken in Brazil’s Pantanal and a nice Common in Costa Rica by Julian Londono Jaramillo.

Here is a nice little intro to the Potoo by David Attenborough, again in Brazil.

Constantly while I was in Costa Rica, I believed every post and branch would end in a camouflaged Potoo – I really tried. Who wants to go Potoo hunting with me this spring? Let’s do this!

Courtesy of Ged Caddick, Terra Incognita Ecotours

9th Bird of Christmas: Belted Kingfisher

3 Jan

For the 9th bird, we return to the water for a large, conspicuous and common waterside resident of Canada and North, Central and South America, the Belted Kingfisher (Megaceryle alcyon), whose portrait can actually be found on the 1986 series Canadian $5 note.

Often while paddling on the Rio Panica or hiking near the estuary in Curú, I would see one of these amazing huge-headed kingfishers, one of five types seen in Costa Rica, the others being the Ringed, Amazon, Green and American Pigmy. Often times I would hear the bird before seeing it, as it was smashing a small fish upon a branch, “whack, whack, whack,” turning it’s great bill to and fro to alternate sides and ensure the life was completely drained from the prey before devouring it, its Mohawk crest flopping about like the shaggy mop of a rock star. I’d also hear its “keck keck keck” sound as it few off a few hundred yards ahead and perched somewhere in search of more prey. Watching it dive head-first straight down into the water is exhilarating, especially if it resurfaces with a fish.

Photo courtesy of Kelly Colgan Azar

An example of reverse sexual dimorphism, the female kingfisher’s rust stripe makes her more brightly colored than the male. All kingfishers were formerly placed in one family, Alcedinidae, but recent research suggests that this should be divided into three. All six American kingfishers, together with three Old World species, make up the new family Cerylidae. The nest of the belted kingfisher is a long tunnel that slopes uphill in case of flooding so the chicks will be able to survive in the air pocket formed by the elevated end of the tunnel. Not being a photographer, I never captured great photos of the bird (I include only one of mine), but feature it here in the new year because of its association with peace in literature.

The kingfisher has been the subject of a fair amount of folklore, harking all the way back to Greek mythology. There is a myth that Zeus was jealous of a female character, Alcyone, for her power over the wind and waves. In a jealous rage, Zeus killed Alcyone’s husband by destroying his ship with lightning. Alcyone threw herself into the sea to join her drowning lover and they both turned into kingfishers. So through the years sailors believed the kingfisher could protect them by calming stormy weather; they referred to the kingfisher as the Halcyon Bird, “halcyon” denoting a time in the past that was idyllic and peaceful. Kingfishers were also thought to nest for seven days of peace and calm when rearing their young, and these were called the Halcyon Days. (Les Beletsky, Costa Rica Travelers’ Wildlife Guide.)

Photo courtesy of Lorcan Keating

The halcyon bird is also a mighty wanderer: it migrates from the northern parts of its range in Canada to the southern United States, Mexico, Central America, the West Indies and northern South America in winter. Sometimes straying far from land, the species is recorded as an accidental visitor on oceanic islands such as Clarion (700 km from the Mexican mainland), and has been spotted as an extremely rare vagrant in Iceland, Ireland and the United Kingdom.

Enjoy some good footage of the Halcyon Bird.

The Belted Kingfisher beats a large fish on a rock.

8th Bird of Christmas: Crested Caracara

2 Jan

Today’s bird follows nicely on the heels of yesterday’s – it’s another falcon, but it is more a scavenger and less a predatory species than the Guaco. Seeing this chicken-like raptor that frequents roadways where it can find carrion efficiently always reminds me of one specific incident which begs the question: “Which came first, the car or the Caracara?”

Photo by Bruce Smith

Like many people, I went to Costa Rica initially to experience ecotourism and the resorts and parks that make sustainable practices their focus. The incredible abundance and diversity of plants and trees there in turn support an incredible abundance and diversity of wildlife, which is what makes the country such an amazing ecotourism destination.

Ticos realized the need to protect their country’s natural resources as early as the 1850s. A century later, a commission was created to study places in the country that should be declared national parks and by 1970, the first parks were established to protect the flora and fauna that make this destination so special. Thus Costa Ricans seem to have a true understanding of how important animals are to their economy – alive rather than dead.

Photo courtesy J Centavo.

Given this history of environmental consciousness, I was amazed to witness every single day I lived in Costa Rica, no matter where I went, an insidious threat to animal life in the form of speeding vehicles.

One day I was walking along the gravel road that leads into Curu Wildlife Refuge, when a taxi sped by me so fast it nearly hit me and a couple of horses. Five minutes later, having picked up a customer at Curú’s Information Center, it raced back down the park road at equally dangerous velocity, this time threatening a Crested Caracara to within an inch of its life. At the expense of any life (wild or otherwise) that happened to be in the way, this tourist was going to get to her next ecotourism activity or hotel muy rapido!

Mexico’s national bird, and found in the southern US, Caracara cheriway combines many characteristics of other species, simultaneously resembling a hawk, vulture, chicken and roadrunner. Called “the bone carrier,” cargahuesos in Spanish, it perches on a low branch, walks around on the ground, or glides low to the earth with wings crooked and bowed, showing the white patch at the base of its primaries. Cruising above roadways in search of roadkill, it occasionally takes live prey or pirates prey from other birds, especially vultures. Vocalizations are dry rattles that give it the moniker “caracara.”

One solitary hike found me face to face with a juvenile who seemed merely bemused by my capturing many photos while he or she preened and looked unconcerned. I could never figure out why this young individual seemed to have an egg actually attached to its chest just under the feathers, which you can see in these photos. If anyone knows the answer to this mystery, please chime in. A tumor perhaps?

So, to return to the question, “Which came first, the car or the caracara?” I think we know the answer. This road running raptor will always be a reminder to me that wherever we go on this planet, there will be cultural challenges and social mores with which we will not agree, but to which we’ll of necessity adapt with cautious tolerance.

2010 in review

2 Jan

The stats helper monkeys at WordPress.com mulled over how this blog did in 2010, and here’s a high level summary of its overall blog health:

Healthy blog!

The Blog-Health-o-Meter™ reads Wow.

Crunchy numbers

Featured image

A Boeing 747-400 passenger jet can hold 416 passengers. This blog was viewed about 2,600 times in 2010. That’s about 6 full 747s.

 

In 2010, there were 8 new posts, not bad for the first year! There were 129 pictures uploaded, taking up a total of 20mb. That’s about 2 pictures per week.

The busiest day of the year was November 17th with 283 views. The most popular post that day was Yin and yang in the Old Pueblo.

Where did they come from?

The top referring sites in 2010 were facebook.com, mail.yahoo.com, tucsonweekly.com, mail.live.com, and sz0129.wc.mail.comcast.net.

Some visitors came searching, mostly for frances figart, yoga conference in india, yoga india, saguaro cactus roots, and rios de la costa.

Attractions in 2010

These are the posts and pages that got the most views in 2010.

1

Yin and yang in the Old Pueblo November 2010
7 comments

2

Bio November 2010

3

Experience November 2010

4

Recommendations November 2010

5

Publications November 2010

7th Bird of Christmas: Laughing Falcon

1 Jan

To herald the new year, I’m choosing a forceful bird of prey, one that I’ve seen a handful of times, always at a fairly great distance, and so even with my zoom, I never got a respectable shot of my own.

The Laughing Falcon, Herpetotheres cachinnans, named for the peal of laughing notes that initiate its lengthy song, is a large white raptor with a striking dark mask and is usually seen perched on a high tree branch in an open area, scanning the ground below for its preferred prey, snakes. After nipping off the snake’s head, it sometimes swallows the entire body as if it were a string of spaghetti. This bird – known locally as the Guaco, an excellent paraphrase of its most common call – apparently has some immunity to snake venom.

Photo courtesy of John Medcraft

I heard the Guaco many times before I ever saw it, just like the ornithologist Alexander Skutch, to whom I pay tribute here with two excerpts from his fantastic chapter called ‘The Snake Eater’ in “A Naturalist in Costa Rica.”

“For many years, the Guaco was for me only a voice and the figure of a bird, for I had not yet learned much about its habits. It was as a voice that the hawk was most familiar; from one end of Central America to the other, in humid regions covered with heavy rain forest and among the cacti and thorny scrub of arid valleys, I had heard that loud, hollow, tirelessly reiterated wah-co, wah-co, wah-co floating over all the countryside from a bird unseen in the distance. Some have compared this call to the agonized wail of a human in pain, but to me it never suggested suffering. On the contrary, the sentiment that it stirred in my spirit was of deep and inscrutable mystery.”

Photo courtesy of Paulo Albuquerque Filho - Pantaneiro Mesmo

One more excerpt describes the proud duet of a pair of Laughing Falcons after a male brings the female a freshly caught snake:

“Promptly on her mate’s arrival, the female Guaco flew down beside him and took the serpent. Her first act was to bite its forward end, as though to make sure that the work of tearing off the head with its poison fangs had been thoroughly done by the male. Then she held the limp body against the perch and began the hymn of victory that celebrated her mate’s return with the proof of his successful hunting. First she uttered a peculiar how how how, which she varied with a slightly different note sounding like haw haw; but before long this changed to a loud wac wac wac, which she continued without interruption for at least five minutes. Meanwhile the male was tuning up with a slightly different sequence of notes. Soon he worked into his full-voiced wah-co, and the two shouted together at their loudest a triumphant paean that filled all the valley and echoed from the enclosing slopes, proclaiming to all hearers that still another serpent had fallen victim to the prowess of the hawks. Then, suddenly, the pair became silent.”

If you like this sort of writing, check out Skutch’s works.

Hear the call of the Guaco.

Watch a video showing the Laughing Falcon.